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Love, marriage can blossom in personal care homes

| Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Phil and Lois McMahon's romance started with a trip to the movies.

The first time they went out alone was to see "The Manchurian Candidate." Phil, 77, had said, "Boy, I'd sure like to see that, but I hate to go by myself."

"That was the start of it," says Lois, 78, a resident at The Devonshire of Mt. Lebanon. "We fell in love."

The couple number among the senior citizens who are finding romance in personal-care homes throughout Western Pennsylvania. Whether they are divorced, widowed or just enjoyed being single, many older Americans are finding that special someone later on in life, according to experts and those who work at area care homes.

"It's much more common because of the limited environment they're in," says David Demko, Ph.D., professor of research and statistics at Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton. "They start to identify other residents and staff as family and friends."

Employees at many of the homes also see the importance of encouraging residents to participate in social activities.

"They want to get people re-engaged in society," Demko says. "They have dances, bingo, trips, games and contests to encourage their social lives."

Sometimes, older couples get married, though not as often as younger people in Western Pennsylvania.

Out of the 10,023 brides who were married in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler and Westmoreland counties in 2003, 586 were 50 or older, Pennsylvania Department of Health records show. Compare that to the 20-34 age group, in which 6,787 brides were married during the same time period.

Today people are living longer, and Pennsylvania has one of the largest senior citizen populations in the country -- offering plenty of opportunities to couple up.

Nearly 16 percent of people in Pennsylvania are older than age 65, second only to Florida, which has a senior citizen population of just less than 20 percent, according to the 2003 U.S. Bureau of the Census. Nationwide, about 12 percent of the population is older than 65.

"The days of seniors sitting around in rocking chairs are long gone," says Linda Dickson, corporate marketing consultant for Redstone Highlands Senior Living Communities.

About 500 people live in three Redstone Highlands communities in Greensburg, Murrysville and North Huntingdon, all in Westmoreland County.

"We know residents that are dating," Dickson says. "Just as it's a part of our lives, it's a part of their lives too."

At The Devonshire where the McMahons live, social interaction is encouraged. Activities for residents include trips to Heinz Hall, concerts and theater outings, and lunch groups that make use of the facility's 23-passenger van. The Devonshire also has a pool, an exercise room, an arts-and-crafts studio, a library and a billiards room. About 190 residents live in apartments and assisted-living arrangements.

Also, the residents eat in a large dining area, which Phil McMahon sees as a great place to socialize.

"There's a woman who works in the dining room. After my wife passed, she asked me if there was anything she could do for me," Phil says. "I said, yes, just don't sit me at the men's table.

"There's no reason they shouldn't be sitting with the women here," says Phil, referring to the group of about eight men that sit at a table together.

Lois has been at The Devonshire since 2001. Phil moved in with his wife in 2003. At first, they got to know each other as friends.

"I would just stop by and say hello to him and his wife during breakfast," Lois says.

Phil's wife later died; Lois' husband died 17 years ago. The two soon became close companions. They married six months ago at The Devonshire. All the residents were invited.

At Parnassus Manor in New Kensington, a couple got married a few years ago, says Jana Graves, site manager.

"They get lonely," Graves says. "They just want a companion to talk to, someone to hang out with."

Some couples enjoy dating but decide not to get married.

Nick Cua, 86, and Jessie Emanuelson, 79, residents at the St. Barnabas Retirement Village in Richland, discussed marriage but decided against it. They've been seeing each other for about two years. They continue to live in separate apartments.

They say St. Barnabas encourages people to couple up so they can watch out for each other.

"We have so many social events to which everyone is invited," says Pam Fickes, recreation director. "It really gives everyone a chance to mingle."

Activities include a monthly birthday party, trips to places such as Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort, and the Something Special Luncheon, which includes musical entertainment. They also have a pub.

"The pub is a great place for people to go and chat," Fickes says. "They can go in and have a glass of wine or beer and just relax."

Emanuelson and Cua's romance started in the library. He sat down next to her.

"I knew she was a nice lady," Cua says. "We've been keeping each other company ever since."

His wife died in 2000; her husband died around the same time.

"I think we're just cut out for each other," Cua says.

"We like to sit here on the couch, and I'll lean into him," Emanuelson says. "He'll put his arm around me."

"I like to kiss her every once in a while, too," Cua says with a wink. "Just to make sure I still have that connection."

The thought of two people finding love in their twilight years is enough to make any romantic swoon. But the late-blooming couples still have hurdles to overcome if they want their love to last, says Demko, whose father was raised in McKeesport.

A romance could be more difficult if the couple's children or other relatives frown upon the relationship. There is also a rising risk of sexually transmitted diseases, Demko says. And with any relationship, stress can be a factor.

Demko says the positive aspects of these late-in-life relationships are more substantial than the negative. Some of the health benefits include a lower risk of obesity and heart attack, he says.

"People come alive; they start to glow," Demko says. "They tend to their appearance more and watch their weight. People like to be desired by another human being at any age."

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